The Perils of Building a Tribe

Tribe building is a funny thing.

Can it be wildly effective for your business?

Absolutely yes.

Will you have to intellectually grapple with some weird concepts in order to make it work?

Absolutely yes again.

Tribe building is just like fictional world building. You have to set imaginary parameters like hierarchy (who’s in charge), mission (what are we doing), and language (how we identify outsiders from insiders).

Where the mental gymnastics start is when you remember that the participants are real world flesh and blood humans. Because building a tribe is just like fictional world building, until it isn’t.

For those of us not born natural overlords, this is when the seeds of doubt are most fertile. We’ll usually either question the morality of it, (Should I be doing this?) or we’ll question the validity of it (This won’t actually work, will it?). Or we’ll get down the road of having successfully implemented tribal marketing and suddenly be frightened at the level of fanaticism the tribe members have.

If you start going down one of those paths then pause. You should make peace with it and yourself before moving on.

Will your, or is your, tribe harming anyone or thing? You have to ask this because, often, a key point of tribal marketing is what you stand against. As long as what you’re standing against isn’t causing harm, then proceed with a clear conscience.

But what about imposter syndrome? What if I’m grappling with my own success?

Ah, an excellent question.

And one we can talk about next week.

– Zac Smith, VC

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Totally Not a Cult

Look, this is a real thing.

Some have described their first time visiting Wizard Academy as, “Disquieting until I figured out what was going on here.”

First, there’s the name. Then, you’ll drive out into the Texas hill country, pull onto a gated campus, and probably see weird art in strange places.

You’ll hear wind chimes and bells. You’ll see people that seem a little too happy to be here walking around with open containers of alcohol. You’ll be meandering along a path through the pewter green cedars, turn a corner, and bam; a wizard’s tower is staring you down.

There also always a chance of meeting one of our alumni who seriously loves Wizard Academy a bit more than is socially acceptable. They’ll rave about their affection for this place with such ardor you’ll wonder if this is some kind of religion.

It’s not.

It’s literally just a business school with a curriculum that focuses on marketing.

Here’s why it is the way it is.

Marketing, at its core, is just good communication. Communication in the Western world is mainly left-brain. There is a whole half of your brain that society has mostly ignored.

We don’t ignore right-brain communication. And so, if the right hemisphere of your brain is not used to being “talked” to, then the first time someone communicates with it, (and it answers back) it can be, well…disquieting.

But that disquiet quickly turns into delight. And the fervor comes in when you can’t get that right brain delight anywhere else like you can here.

So, yeah. Totally not a cult.

Just a really cool business school and some right-brain junkies.

– Zac Smith, VC

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A Guilty Business

Guilt carries a lot of baggage.

Every now and again it can help us mend relationships or do the right thing. But more often than not it seems to linger long past usefulness.

A proverbial millstone around our necks that usually shows up when we’re already drowning.

I’m not a mental health professional. I’m just a guy who has noticed that guilt comes with two common responses; anger or apathy.

When someone or something has (as we see it) unjustly caused us to feel guilt we’re incensed. It feels like an invasion on our personal feelings.  When this happens the guilt channels into an angry, “How dare they.”

Guilt can be a caustic poison. Which is why I’ve also seen long-held guilt eat away at a person’s motivation. After a while there’s no point in doing anything, because why? It’s not like anything is going to get better.

While I’ve been talking in general terms, I’ve specifically seen guilt trigger anger or apathy in business owners.

For example, when a customer comments about how high your prices are, if you’re feeling any guilt about how much you’re charging then anger can rear its head. It most often sounds like, “Don’t they know I’ve got to eat too? What do they want from me?”

Apathy shows up when, even if your customers are happy, you feel like you’re taking advantage of them. Any guilt here can turn to a slow decline of self-sabotaging. Little fires don’t get put out, and you’ll foot drag right into a conflagration.

I might be wrong about the cause-and-effect nature of guilt. You might completely disagree with my evaluation. And that’s ok, because here’s what I do know.

Time is too precious to let business guilt weigh you down. So, if that means getting into a new career or changing the current business model to one you can live with, then do it.

There are some things beyond what money can buy.

– Zac Smith, VC

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I’m Just Naïve Enough

I don’t consider myself a fool. (Though I suppose we all think that about ourselves.)

Fools have too hard a time of it. It’s not easy, after all, being the bane of humanity.

Fools will foil your best plans. Fools rush in. Fools flatter themselves. Fools criticize, complain, and condemn. And any fool can make a rule.

No. I would not want to be a fool.

But what about being naïve?  

Naiveté is defined as a lack of experience. Innocence. It’s not so much not knowing, as it’s not having had an opportunity to know.

Is that an evil thing? You could easily be led to believe so. Look how much children are encouraged to ditch their naïve rose-colored glasses in favor of “reality.”

“There was a time when that kind of thing looked like the kingdom of heaven, but somewhere along the line it had lost its glow. Maybe that was just the cost of growing up. And maybe the cost of growing up was too high.”- James P. Blaylock

Oh yes, once doffed it’s hard to don those rosy lenses. We forget to tell children that part.

Which is a shame because I believe there’s something to be said for naiveté and success. Speaking of her success in music, Lady Gaga said:

“If I had known anything, this never would have happened. It was my delusion and naiveté that brought me here.”

And Heston Blumenthal, a world-famous chef with three honorary degrees from Reading, Bristol and London Universities for his scientific approach to cooking, notes:

“As we get older, we tend to become more risk averse because we tend to find reasons why things won’t work. When you are a kid, you think everything is possible, and I think with creativity it is so important to keep that naiveté.”

Of course, too much naiveness can be detrimental. I’m not advocating ignorance. For just a moment or two, though, what if you could walk in the moon glitter night of possibilities? Would you try new and fantastic solutions to your troubles?

What would it feel like if doubt was replaced with naïve hope? Would you smile more? Would you recapture the bold confidence of youth? Would you succeed further if you naively didn’t know you weren’t supposed to?

I don’t consider myself a fool. And for a certainty you are no fool.

Naive, however?

Yes. Let’s be just naïve enough.

I suspect it will serve us well.

– Zac Smith, VC

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6 Business Lessons from Wordle

Last week I talked about how Wordle game play mirrors the way good marketing strategy works. (You can click here for that.)
This week, we’re going to talk about 6 business lessons you and I can steal from Wordle.
Lesson 1: No advertising on the page. It’s only the game. Which means it doesn’t feel baity.
The lesson?
Delivering value while asking for nothing in return can be a highly effective marketing strategy
Lesson 2: You don’t have to signup, give an email, create an account, or anything to play Wordle. Super, simple, seamless.
Just a perfect example of removing friction from the customer experience.
Lesson 3: Solving the puzzle is one win. Solving the puzzle in the fewest guesses is a second kind of win. The opposite is also true. When you start, if you can guess it in two or three tries you feel super smart. But if you miss the three-guess mark, you immediately switch to, “Well, as long as I get it in six, I’m still winning.” Which means multiple chances to win and feel good.
So, the question to ask is, where in the buying process can I layer in multiple opportunities for my customers to feel like they’re winning? Where can delight be infused?
Lesson 4: Easily sharable. Which means you can brag and compare.
The real stroke of Wordle genius, the thing that makes it easy to share, is that they made it about the player. You’re not sharing Wordle, you’re sharing your Wordle score. A subtle but wildly important difference.
Want sharable content? Give people content that lets them brag about themselves.
Lesson 5: Time pressure and scarcity. There’s only one puzzle per day. Plus, you have to make sure you play each day by midnight to keep your streak going. Which means it’s top of mind EVERY DAY.
If you could binge play as many puzzles as you wanted, you’d play for like five hours straight, scratch that itch, and lose interest.
Scarcity can drive demand. If you use it, though, you have to make sure it’s scarcity for a legitimate reason. Like production capacity, one off run, or a similarly valid reason.
Lesson 6: Wordle found a good business model and they’re sticking to it. Of course, once people got hooked on the game, they’d demand more puzzles. (Once a day isn’t enough.) Did Wordle cave to demand? I mean, after all, giving the people what they want is good business, right?
Wordle has stuck to what Wordle does. One puzzle a day. They let other copy cats fill the demand for unlimited puzzles and are confident enough to not chase that market share.
The lesson? Choose who to lose. If you’ve found a successful business model, then there’s a very good chance chasing the other side of the market will dilute your brand. Just make sure to do your due research.
Ok, now I have to go play Wordle before midnight. Got to keep that streak going.

– Zac Smith, VC

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What Wordle Taught Me About Marketing

I finally gave in.

I’ve been intentionally ignoring Wordle because, frankly, I thought it was stupid.

But my curiosity got the best of me and now I Wordle. (Having recently started, I’m on a baby 27-win streak. Though I probably just jinxed that.)

There’s an important lesson about good marketing exemplified in Wordle.

Wordle game play loosely works like this. The object is to guess the five-letter word of the day. You’re allowed up to six guesses. Your first guess is plucked out of thin air. You can start with any five-letter word that you want; however, there is good and bad strategy for which five-letter word you should start with.

After your first guess, you get feedback in three potential areas.

  1. Green letters are the right letter in the right spot.
  2. Yellow letters are in the word but are in the wrong spot.
  3. Grey letters are not in the word.

You then use those clues to figure out your next guess until, hopefully, you guess the word of the day.

So, what’s this have to do with marketing?

As you can see in Wordle, if you guessed the word of the day on your first guess, would there be any problem-solving skill required? Any repeatable strategy?

Not really. You got lucky on your first attempt.

The same is often true with marketing. If your first attempt is wildly successful, then celebrate!

But then ask, can I repeat this success? It won’t be until the second, third, and fourth forays that you find out if you’re actually a marketing savant or not.

A great Wordler can consistently arrive at the word of the day in three to four guesses.

Why not in two guesses?

Because even getting it in two is still a product of luck either on your first guess or second. But three guesses? Three is the mark of a highly developed strategy coupled with skill.

And so it is in marketing.

Look for the marketer that consistently nails a solid marketing plan in only a handful of iterations and you have found a great marketer.

A marketer who can repeat their successes.

– Zac Smith, VC

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The Secret of Successful Copywriters*

Can a well-written ad campaign make a business madly successful?


But the success is not wholly in the words.

Now, don’t get me wrong. A good copywriter is worth their weight in platinum. And the right words in the right order make a fantastical difference.

But know this. The words only work if there’s a great business behind them.

For example, I’ve been saying for a while that I want to trim down, but I haven’t lost any weight yet. I hear great things about these “personal trainers.” Lots of people who have them get fit and look great. So, I hire one.

On the first visit I tell the trainer, “I’ve been saying ‘I want to trim down,’ but I haven’t lost any weight yet. I must not be good with words. Can you tell me how to say, ‘I want to trim down’ in a way that’ll make me start losing weight?”

The trainer says, “First you need to start exercising and eating better.”

I say, “Whoa buddy. I’m not about that stuff. Look, I’m paying you to get me results. Now, teach me to say the magic words ‘trim down’ in a way that makes me lose weight, or get lost.”

Clearly, the fact that I’m not losing weight is the fault of the personal trainer. Am I right, or am I right?

And then, just like all those business owners who say they’ve tried advertising and it doesn’t work; I strut around nobly wearing my crown of ignorance.

Words can be magical, but the magic has limits. Great copy can’t make a bad business good.

One of the secrets of great copywriters who make businesses madly successful is that they’re working with businesses that are already successful. (They’re just not madly successful. Yet.) They’re companies that understand customer service, cash flow, growth, management, employee retention, and all the other things that go into a successful enterprise.

So, if you’re a business owner, make sure you’re ready for a great copywriter. If you’re a copywriter, make sure the business you’re working with is ready for you.

And when the two line up, look out. You’ll be madly successful.

And it’ll be our little secret.

– Zac Smith, VC 

*The Vice Chancellor is on the road this week. So, I pulled this out of the archives from April 9th, 2021. It’s like traveling back in time one year, but without the reentry sickness.

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Your Customer Has Been Unfaithful

Transactional customers* are philandering floozies.

You thought that just because you promised great service, top selection, and competitive pricing that it meant they’d be exclusive to you?

Oh honey. Bless your heart.

They never promised to be true to you. That wasn’t part of the deal.

Unfortunately, to a transactional customer, business is a one-way street.

The moment you’re out of stock, unavailable, or your competitor is having a sale, they get the rovin’ eye.

What’s a business person to do?

Well, if you’re determined to keep them in your life, (which I have mixed feelings about, but it’s your business) then there are three things.

First, accept the reality that they’ve got choices, and if you wanna keep them around you’re gonna have to work for it.

Second, learn to love them as they are. Sure, they step out on you from time to time. But doesn’t that just add to the excitement?

Third, their wandering nature makes them easy to steal from your competitors. In this business soap opera, you get to play Jolene.

Funny. Now that I’m looking at it, keeping a transactional customer is the exact opposite of a healthy personal relationship.

But that makes sense. Because after all, transactional customers are philandering floozies.

Relational customers, on the other hand, are all the things transactional customers aren’t. But that’s a story for another day.

 – Zac Smith, VC

*Customers can be broken into two categories; transactional and relational. In a gross oversimplification, Transactional customers tend to be price-sensitive, and relational customers tend to shop based on, well, their relationship with you.

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Not My Competition

The English language is often directional. Mess that direction up and you won’t make sense.

What do I mean?

English is full of terms that apply to you, but not to others. Terms that describe unique connections of relationship.

For example, if your parents have siblings, what do you call those people?

They’re your Aunts and Uncles.

What do your parents call their siblings? Not Aunt and Uncle, but sister and brother.

We completely understand the concept and direction of familial nouns. And yet, you’ll find many small business owners and copy writers using terms in their ads that apply only to them, and not to their customers.

For example, the other businesses in your category are your competition.

But they’re not your customer’s competition. To your customer they’re the other options.

Recently I saw an ad that said, “We’re faster than the competition.”

As a customer I’m subconsciously thinking, “You’re faster than who? The ‘competition’? Not my competition.”

Let’s just set aside the terrible idea of making unsubstantiated claims, and take this ad concept at face value. Wouldn’t it be better to phrase it from the view point of the customer? At the very least, couldn’t we say, “We’re your fastest option?” Or, “We’ll take care of you faster than anyone else?”

You get the point.

English is full of terms that apply to you, but not to your customers. Don’t forget to write things from their perspective.

Assuming, that is, you’d like to make sense.

 – Zac Smith, VC

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First night in La Mancha

Where’s the Vice Chancellor’s Corner?

This week, in order to give full attention to my good friend Gordon’s project as Artist in Residence, there’s no Vice Chancellor’s Corner. Check back next week for the latest article.

In the meantime, enjoy the first journal entry below, or click the “Read more from La Mancha” button to really fall down a rabbit hole.

 – Zac Smith, VC

First Journal Entry

On beyond the Lost Boys Cabins you leave everything human behind. I found a comfortable rock out there and sat upon it as the sun slipped below the horizon. I sat for quite some time, as day turning to night takes longer than most people realize.

Somewhere along the way I learned that every place has an ambient sound. When you first arrive it’s a good idea to be silent for a time and listen to what may be heard there.

My place was bordered by the Gully of the Wild Things on my left, the Valley of Dulcinea before me, the Village of La Mancha to my right, and Crystal Hills Drive behind me. That was the place where I was. The sounds of that place were what I heard. I am a human being, so I made some clumsy noises entering and leaving, but for the most part I was silent.

I was in that place and state of mind while I watched my first sunset in the Land of La Mancha. As the orange sky deepened to red I had one of those moments where the membrane between Mother Nature and me had grown thin, like a veil.

Then I heard the thump thump thump of car doors closing. A wedding party arrived in the village. You can tell a lot about people by how they close their doors. If you hear a lot of slams in quick succession, consider those mortar rounds and they’re about to explode at the Fang & Feather.

This is going to be an interesting place to live. One minute you’re listening to owls and the next someone rings the bell at Dulcinea and a wedding celebration begins. Perhaps the soul of La Mancha lies in the collision of humanity with nature.


I think sunset watching is going to be a thing.


I saw a fox last night. I was laying on the sidewalk by the Bells of La Mancha watching the stars and I heard a weird sound. I rolled over and jumped to my feet. I saw a fox slip into the undergrowth.

I think it was sniffing my head.

 – Gordon Atkinson

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1 in 1,147

On Tuesday I saw this ridiculous challenge.

Can you find the 8 within 10 seconds?

Go ahead, give it a try. It won’t take you long.

You probably found that 8 in way less than 10 seconds.

Congratulations! You’re human.

You and I have an innate ability to scan a sea of sameness and, out of 1,147 number 9’s, pick out the only 8.

The 8 practically jumps out at you. In fact, now that you’ve seen the 8, your eye is irresistibly drawn to it every time you look at the picture.

That’s the power of differentiating yourself in a crowded marketplace. But you already knew that. So instead, let’s talk about a proven and effective tactic for standing out.

Unlike a Unique Selling Proposition, this technique can’t be copied by your competitors. Know what it is?

Your personality.

This could also be called your Brand’s Personality, but for most small businesses, your personality as the owner is the brand personality. Either way, it’s a great way to set yourself apart. I mean, the reason you’re close with your friends is probably because of something you liked in their personality, and not because they gave you a coupon.

So, have you written your personality down? Can you articulate it in three to four characteristics? Have you documented the stories that explain why you do the things you do?

The specific tools for capturing your personality are called Character Diamonds and Origin Stories. There’s not enough time today to dive into their inner workings, but I wanted you to at least know the names.

Why go through the effort of documenting your personality? I mean, you know how to be you, isn’t that good enough?

Yeah, it is if you personally handle every single customer touchpoint in your business.

However, if someone other than you answers the phone, replies to emails, writes your web copy, talks to customers, or creates your ads, then it would be worth documenting. That way, all your customer interactions feel seamless and coming from one personality.

Because, after all the hard work you’ve done to build your business, wouldn’t it be nice to stand out like one 8 in a thousand 9’s?

 – Zac Smith, VC

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The Curse of Talent

If you are even remotely talented, of which I am betting you are indeed talented, then the ability to make money will never be an issue for you.

Know what will be your curse?

Having to pick which opportunities you’re going to pursue.

Because when you, a talented person, are presented with business openings, there will always be a little voice in your head that says, “Oh I should totally do that. I’ve got the skills to make that very successful.”

It’s not a question of skill, though, is it? It’s a question of time.

Your brain knows that.

But your heart will plague you with doubts and the could-have-been’s of missed opportunity.

This is your assurance that there are heaps of ways you could legitimately make a successful living or grow your business even more; because, after all, you’re talented.

However, you’re not missing out by passing on most of them.

Instead, the more you focus your talents on select endeavors, the more you’ll get out of those opportunities.

This is your curse.

And I hope you wear it with pride.

 – Zac Smith, VC

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